December 31, 2008

The Best Korean Movies of 2008 (Sort of)

Although Korean Grindhouse began in 2007, the blog didn't kick into full gear until 2008 during which I saw 69 Korean movies! While only a few on this list are current releases, all but one were new to me which is all the qualification they needed. Without further ado, my Top 10.

1. Musa - The Warriors: Generally I like my violence in a suit with shiny shoes. Musa expanded my wardrobe. An epic set in the 14th century, this costume drama put its battles in robes and rags. I loved every minute of it.

2. Le Grand Chef: Did I once say Korea and comedy were oxmorons? Oops! I guess I needed to see Spygirl, and even moreso Le Grand Chef, a Capraesque masterpiece about a country cook who takes on some cheating city slickers to right the family name.

3. Bad Guy: Seven Kim Ki-duk movies in one year is a good thing and frankly, The Isle and Spring, Summer... could just as easily be on this list. Neither would rank as high as Bad Guy though, a brutal fable about prostitution, sex, class and power.

4. Public Enemy: My favorite Korean flicks are the noirs. My favorite noir this year was the original Public Enemy, a snazzy cop thriller that rightfully started a franchise and established Sol Kyung-gu and Lee Sung-jae as the ultimate cop-crook duo.

5. A Bittersweet Life: Hot on Public Enemy's heels is Kim Ji-woon's jopok fantasy in which an obedient thug's first rebellious (if charitable) gesture sets off a string of terrifying acts of vengeance.

6. Oasis: As far as I'm concerned, the greatest romances are tragedies. (What a queen!) Could you get one more problematic than this one between an emotionally backward guy and a severely disabled girl?

7. The Soul Guardians: K-horror is represented by this fright flick rich with Catholic imagery. Nothing's scarier than messing with the devil and Park Kwang-chun's visually lush film suggests there's little as beautiful either.

8. Terror Taxi: Weird for weirdness' sake is underrated. And there's plenty of utter strangeness here in this surreal depiction of a purgatory populated by amoral cabbies killed during their last shifts as living souls.

9. Stray Bullet: It's hard to find old Korean movies on DVD. This neorealist parable about a doomed Everyman makes you wish there were more out there. It's Seoul's answer to Umberto D. -- just as heartwrenching with perhaps a bit more grit.

10. Hera Purple: Soft porn on a top ten list? Well, why the hell not. This sexploitation flick about a libidinous woman possessed by a vengeful goddess is a total crack-up. The cast is pretty hot, too.

December 28, 2008

Cinderella: The Pretty Stepsister Becomes the Ugly One

At this point in life, I guess I'll never know the intense love that accompanies being a parent. At least, not the type of love that involves carving the face off another child to make sure my own kid looks good. My feelings just don't run that deep. The devoted mother (To Ji-won) in Bong Man-dae's Cinderella is another case entirely though. She adores her only daughter (Shin Se-kyung); and since mom's a plastic surgeon, a car explosion that burns her child's face isn't about to get in the way of her precious baby having a Sweet 16 party one day. But face-swapping is complicated, karmically as well as surgically; can you blame the defaced orphan from wanting her own face back? Those rubber masks that she's been wearing are pretty but they get clammy and they look kind of creepy. Since a retributive transplant keeps getting postponed, the "secret sister locked in the basement" exacts revenge by getting into the minds of any of the mother's patients who happen to be the daughter's friends. Soon everyone hates the face that she was born with even if it has been improved. Maybe that's because they're all art students. Spending all that time at school carving faces from clay might set your beauty standards too high.

December 26, 2008

No Blood, No Tears: Raising a Fist for the Sisterhood

The world needs more movies about women who learn to fight back. Ones featuring ladies who bond while kicking butt are even better. So here's to Ryu Seung-wan's No Blood, No Tears, a jopok chick flick with female fists as capable of drawing blood as they are of being raised in sisterly solidarity. Admittedly, both lead women aren't natural born killers. That honor goes to a down-on-her-luck cabbie (the unstoppable Lee Hye-yeong) who's stuck between a rock and a hard place because her AWOL husband's left her in debt up to her ears. Attempting to stay straight, she's reluctant to pair up with a gangster's moll (Jeon Do-yeon) as a way to get out of her situation but desperate times call for desperate measures. And so, the two misfits pair up to outwit the syndicate, the police, and one decidedly misogynist boyfriend (Jeong Jae-yeong). Little do they know that they'll also have to contend with a trio of goofballs led by none other than the director's adorable brother Ryu Seung-beom. With as many fistfights as there are doublecrosses, No Blood, No Tears would've been noir of the highest order if Ryu had simply spent a little more on the soundtrack. (The score is awful.) It's a B-movie, that's a B+.

December 24, 2008

Christmas in August: Sentimentality That Leaves You Cold

Christmas in August is sick. If I were a doctor, I'd go so far as to diagnose its lead character (played by Han Syu-kyu) with a brain tumor. We know he's dying of something; professionally, I'd say his tendency to giggle over nothing indicates a foreign mass causing unwanted stress in the cranial cavity. Either that or he's borderline brain dead. Same for his simpleton girlfriend (Shim Euh-ha), a traffic cop inexplicably drawn to his childlike, masochistic ways. She never learns (while he's alive) that his days are numbered; he's too busy being stoic in his gratingly lighthearted way. But before he's found his resting place in the local crematorium and she's learned to flirt with other guys at a rockabilly bar, director Hur Jin-ho will force us to sit through their stumbling, maudlin courtship. It's a big screen romance skipping from one cliche to the next: the late night stroll in which one lover tells the other a ghost story about farting, the rollercoaster ride at the amusement park followed by shared ice cream... vanilla, of course. They never have sex but then, it's hard to have a menage a trois when the third party is death. Next up for Hur? Hanukkah in July. Prognosis? Fatal.

December 18, 2008

Romance Papa: A Hit in 1960, A Relic Today

The title character of Romance Papa is what's commonly referred to as a sentimental old fool. He's also a bit of a windbag with artistic delusions and a braggart dumb enough to challenge his 19-year-old son to a wrestling match. But because he's played by the charismatic Kim Seung-ho, you understand why his family loves him and why one young co-worker aspires to be his drinking buddy. He's what you'd call a lovable shmuck. You still want to see him taken down a peg now and again but your heart goes out to him when later in the movie, he loses his middle management job at an insurance company. Even bores need someplace to work, especially ones who, at 52, can't compete in a youth-driven marketplace. That woeful turn of events is when producer-director Shin Sang-ok's two-hour-plus drama finally starts to get interesting. It's a little late, granted, but there's still time enough for a well-earned weepy ending that has papa's children showing respect by retrieving papa's pawned watch before singing "Happy Birthday" in English. Shin's wife, movie siren Choi Eun-hie who plays the eldest daughter, does more with a simple bow to her parents than Shin does the entire drippy drama.

December 17, 2008

Geochilmaru - The Showdown: Gaming in the Old Style

Geochilmaru: The Showdown is really such a retro concept for a video game, you'd think a Pong ball had hit you in the head. Zoinks! Eight strangers -- each with a contrasting fashion sense and martial arts discipline -- are summoned by a mysterious training fansite to compete in an ultimate fighting match on a snow-covered mountain. (The scenery, like the lighting, is frankly blah.) The goal is to subdue each opponent and thereby collect all eight coded necklaces which, when pieced together, will reveal the secret identity of the webmaster who may or may not be one of the competitors. Though the setup is unoriginal, who wins which fight isn't so obvious and the battles themselves feel more real than you'd expect given the low production values. To his credit, director Kim Jin-seong uses real pros like mixed martial artist Kim Dae-won in his cast which racks up high marks by pooh-poohing the flashy F/X of Crouching Tiger Hidden Tiger and its costly ilk for something more authentic. This isn't art. This is chop 'em sock 'em action with sage sayings and corny gags to get you from one good fight to the next. Coming soon to an Xbox near you.

December 13, 2008

Attack on the Pin-up Boys: Super Junior Gets Super Silly

Bubblegum boy bands and teenybop comedies are one of those matches made in heaven that tend to drag audiences into hell. Despite that, Attack on the Pin-up Boys is truthfully not a bad movie. Starring all 13 members of the Korean pop sensation Super Junior, this ultra-silly mystery is a tween's live-action scrapbook with characters goofing, mugging, or turning into cartoons while clip art stickers fly around their pretty heads. The plot itself is wryly preposterous: A high school student (Kim Kibum) with geek-chic glasses starts blogging on a string of crimes in which the most popular boy at each neighboring school gets poop thrown in his face. With his own school next in line, our narrator's blog gets totally popular as he speculates who will have the dubious honor of getting shit-faced next. Will it be the student body prez (Choi Siwon) whose supernatural powers go unremarked? Or the prissy squad leader (Kim Heechul) of a three-man breakdance group who sees this attack as his ticket to fame? It seems less likely that it will be the judo champ (Kim Youngwoon) currently sparring with a guy dressed like a panda. You'll need to own a training bra to love this one. But you can wear anything in the closet to simply like it.

December 10, 2008

Save the Green Planet: The Movie That Converted Me

I don't know if Jang Joon-Hwan's Save the Green Planet is the greatest Korean movie ever made but it's certainly the one I've watched the most often (five times and counting) and, alongside Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, can be credited with turning me into a Korean film fan for life. Every time I watch it, I'm struck anew by its complex storytelling, its rich cast of characters, its pictorial sophistication, its utter profundity. That its outrageous ending shocks me every single viewing is a testament to how irrestibly its trippy narrative pulls you in. Save the Green Planet isn't just a movie, it's an alternate reality, its own self-contained world. I can think of few other movies that qualify as love story, scifi thriller, satirical comedy, and surreal critique on the nature of reality. Being John Malkovich comes the closest but Save the Green Planet packages it all in an outsider art esthetic that makes it truly one-of-a-kind. Is the kidnapped CEO (Baek Yun-shik) an ambassador from Andromeda? Can a rumpled detective (Lee Jae-yong) outwit a serial killer (Shin Ha-kyun) who keeps bees? Will an acrobatic naif (Hwang Jeong-min) find the love she deserves? Watch it and see. Then watch it again. And again. And again.

December 7, 2008

Whispering Corridors: The First of Four Parts

Room 3-3 is spooked. Just ask skittish homeroom teacher Mrs. Park or her replacement, the lascivious Mr. Oh. Except you can't ask them. They're dead! So take your question to another staff member and recent grad, the personable Hur Eun-young (Lee Mi-yeon). She, like you, is trying to figure out the cause behind these recent "suicides" and has much time on her hands to do so because she's without any classes to teach. (I guess this highly competitive all-girls school has a strict policy that first-year teachers should observe, not instruct.) What she'll tell you is that the letters JJ were carved into that desk at the back of the room by none other than herself. But as to the red water-stain on the ceiling, she, like you, must wait until the end of Whispering Corridors for an answer as to how it got there and why it keeps getting bigger! Not that she'll care. She'll be too preoccupied with convincing the spirit of her late best friend that childhood betrayals should be forgiven, not avenged. Park Ki-hyeong's ghost story inspired three sequels: Whispering Corridors II, Wishing Stairs, and Voice. Such is the allure of the paranormal when dressed in short skirts and knee socks.

November 28, 2008

The Uninvited: Shellshocked Duo Leave Few Shocks

For much of Lee Soo-youn's The Uninvited, the two main characters walk around in a daze. For him (Park Shin-yang), the causes include a blow to the head, being overworked, repressed childhood memories, premarital jitters, and possibly a drinking problem. For her (Jun Ji-hyun), the stupor is caused by narcolepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, a contentious divorce, and perhaps too much medication. (Later you learn, she's also a closet shaman!) The pair first meet -- where else? -- in a psychiatric office: She's there as a client; he's come on business as an interior designer. A good ninety minutes into the movie, their sympathetic diagnoses finally get to meld into one type of craziness. Until then, The Uninvited is just a lot of blank stares of incomprehension, made dramatic by a couple of girl ghosts materializing periodically. The film's last half hour is vastly more spirited than the rest but when the charming Yu Seon, as the lead's no-nonsense girlfriend, leaves the protagonist in exasperation, you share her sentiments if not her reasons. As thrillers that use amnesia go, this one is completely forgettable.

November 24, 2008

A Bittersweet Life: Payback Is Murder

Jopok means Korean mafia. But it also refers to a genre of movies dealing with same. Example: A Bittersweet Life, Kim Ji-woon's superfine and shiny genre flick about a slick bad-ass (Lee Byung-hun) whose career as a criminal hits the skids when he falls for the young lady (Shin Min-a) he's supposed to be shadowing. He discovers she's cheating on his boss (Kim Yeong-cheol) but he's so enamored of her shoulder and her ear that he can't bring himself to kill her even if she doesn't love him back. Anyway, who has time for love when you're just trying to survive. Gang members armed with knives, sticks, and wrenches, not to mention a sick imagination when it comes to torture, are everwhere you turn. That's when it's time to get creative. Dig your way out of your own muddy grave. Figure out a way to use a telephone battery as a weapon. Track down the underground of the underground and get yourself a black market Stechkin, a Russian automatic pistol. Whatever you do, don't let them break your spirit. Not when they tie you up. Not when they stab you in the gut. Not when they shoot you with an Uzi so blood is pouring out your front. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord. But is this what he was talking about? Maybe. Because he also said an eye for an eye. And there's plenty of that here in technicolor.

A Dirty Carnival: How Do You Say Brando in Korean?

If the only Korean movie you ever saw was A Dirty Carnival (and frankly you could do a lot worse), you'd probably think to yourself, "Oh, I get it. Korea is the Italy of the Orient." This would be of course because you'd never set foot in Korea (or Italy) and had founded your interpretation on the films of Francis Ford Coppola and a passing knowledge of both countries' cuisines. And it's not just that A Dirty Carnival is so clearly an homage to the Godfather trilogy with its electrifying depictions of violence, its detailed deconstruction of family dynamics, and its paranoid portrayal of working for the syndicate. Once you engage in Korean-Italian associations, you realize how much the two nations have in common: noodles, a shoe fetish, a sense of pageantry for funerals, a love of public singing and drinking, even the art of film-making. If Yu Ha's mafia epic feels Italian (or at least Italian-American), it's because on some level that's what it wants to be. You can easily imagine Talia Shire cast as the sickly girlfriend played by Lee Bo-young, Al Pacino in the role of Zo In-sung's overly ambitious gangster and Brando in the role of the mafia don (ably embodied by Chun Ho-jin). Re-cast to your heart's content, people. A Dirty Carnival remains great on its own terms because the substitutions or cross-cultural counterparts never feel like inferior replacements. They feel like they demand respect. You respect what inspired it? You'll respect this, too.

November 21, 2008

M: Not Letter Perfect Symbolism

In Lee Myung-se's mindnumbing melodrama M, maudlin muse and memory-figment Mimi (Lee Yeon-hee) mentions meditatively that she's mad for things starting with M. She loves Mozart, Modigliani, and more to the point Min-woo (Kang Dong-won), a momentarily manic memoirist made miserable by a millstone that's either money-related or a premarital misgiving. Maybe mostly it's the man's miserable case of writer's block. Whatever the mundane matter, Min-woo is majorly mixed up: See how he moons over the mercurial mystery woman; watch as he demeans his milksop/helpmeet/roomie (Kong Hyo-jin), imminent marriage be damned. (As to his book, it's a mawkish mess.) What to make of this murky material... M may mean a mystifying, metaphorical memory of Mimi or a morbid mental case in a midlife crisis! Most likely, M means high-minded masturbation. As moviemaking goes, M is Lee's meandering manifesto for maximalism with all the methods misapplied; the montages are technically masterful yet mildly meaningful. If Lee meant to make an imagist marvel with M, he missed by a mile.

November 19, 2008

Wide Awake: You Are Not Getting Very, Very Sleepy

In the 1990s, French performance artist Orlan caused a sensation by having plastic surgery done while she was awake reading the philosophy of Lacan. Unquestionably, writer-director Lee Kyoo-man and his cowriter Lee Hyeon-jin see the interface of consciousness and surgery as something less erudite and more traumatizing. The young child who anesthesia paralyzes without numbing during open-heart surgery grows up to be a homicidal psychopath who enjoys getting intentionally stung by bees and murdering the hospital staff as well as their offspring. But which man is the addled adult version of the crazed child? Is it the dashing doctor (Kim Myeong-min) or the pert anesthesiologist (Jeong Yu-seok)? Is it the nebbishy hypnotist (Kim Tae-woo) or the mysterious drifter with a steamy shower scene (built-for-pleasure Yu Jun-sang)? Despite what you might first think, it's certainly not that pesky crank-caller. Wide Awake is one of those movies that doesn't keep you guessing so much as it keeps slyly misleading you. Shout "He did it!" once and you'll shout it a dozen times -- albeit less victoriously. What you'll be screaming during what looks like footage from actual surgeries is more like, "Whoa! That looks too real!"

November 15, 2008

Terror Taxi: A Ride Into the Unknown

For every Eraserhead, there's a Liquid Sky; for every Evil Dead, there's The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Universe. Sometimes, an early oddball movie announces a directorial visionary (David Lynch, Sam Raimi); sometimes, it doesn't (Slava Tsukerman, W.D. Richter). I wish Terror Taxi had fallen in the former camp. But from the looks of it, that's probably not going to be the case since, as far as I can tell, this funny freakshow circa 2000 is Heo Seung-jun's first and only flick. Too bad. A kooky comedy about a dead cab driver (Lee Seo-jin) trying to make sense of Limbo, Heo's feature debut has the crazy logic of a Repo Man or a Donnie Darko with enough surreal imagery (blood-fueled car engines, amusement park rest stops, and flying taxis), visual gags (projectile vomiting, butt cracks), and hammy performances (Jeong Hae-gyu in particular) to justify a cult following. The movie demands -- and deserves -- repeat viewings since there's no other way to untangle its knotty narrative. That said, for anyone who thinks a little confusion isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's delivered with smarts, style and a sense of humor, Terror Taxi is kind of terrific.

November 8, 2008

A Bloody Aria: Darwinism for Tenors

Wishful opera wannabe In-jeong (Cha Ye-ryeon) has a hard day ahead of her. Not only will she botch an audition, have her lips licked by a lecherous professor (Lee Beyong-jun), run in impractical shoes on a sandy shore, and witness the senseless beating of a high school student (Kim Shi-hoo) by country bumpkins who will go on to stuff her in the trunk of a Mercedes Benz but she'll have to do most of it without a proper pair of panties. No one ever said a career in opera would be easy in the provinces. Metaphorical to the extreme, Won Shin-yeon's A Bloody Aria is a movie in love with the violence it critiques. Characters rebel against their oppressors then express their undying devotion to the same. Any attempt to call the craziness to a halt will only result in you being punished again severely. The king-of-the-hill plot has a subtext about the dangers of obedience yet it undercuts this commentary by celebrating its most sadomasochistic character (Lee Mun-shik) who likes to get a beating as much as he likes to give one. If there's takeaway wisdom here, it's that you can fight it, you should fight, you will lose, you might as well become a good fighter anyway.

November 3, 2008

Princess Aurora: Mom Fulfills Dead Daughter's Curse From the Grave

I hereby declare the serial kller movie Korea's answer to the American musical. It's a genre that Korean directors constantly reinvent in spectacular ways and one which receives their most lavish attentions. It's also a subset that contains some of my favorite Korean films: Save the Green Planet, Memories of Murder, even the ludicrous Hera Purple. Princess Aurora puts yet another arresting spin on the category. This time, director Bang Eun-jin throws the whodunit aspect out the window and shifts the suspense over to another question: Why doesn't the bible-reading detective (Moon Sung-keun) turn in his dissociative ex-wife (Eom Jeong-hwa) once he's figured out she's behind the gruesome crimes? That it involves their dead daughter is part of the answer; so is plain rudeness. But given that the murderess is caught, convicted and condemned three quarters of the way through the film, you'll have to find your mystery elsewhere at the end. As you're rediscovering it, Bang will tell you the reason behind each death and something less tangible about the pursuit of justice. Sometimes, it's petty; sometimes, it's profound. But Princess Aurora is always exquisitely photographed. As a feature debut, Bang's is an impressive accomplishment.

November 1, 2008

The Humanist: Thick as Thieves, the Thickheaded Ones

The line between tragedy and comedy is a thin one but for some reason it's much easier to cross in a single direction. There are plenty of "serious" movies awful enough to be funny. The horror genre abounds with them. But there aren't many comedies so unfunny, they're downright serious. Which brings us to The Humanist, a comedy-thriller hybrid that broadly indicates "kooky" without ever being so. The problem is probably directorial since the script was co-written by auteur Park Chan-wook. Park never goes for the laugh even when it's indicated. In his hands, lives and stories spin crazily out of control but they feel surreal, not silly; with Park, every crazy step between the accidental killing of a cop and the internal death threats among three friends would've been guided by a lushly filmed fatal determinism. And the extreme violence, especially the flashbacks with kids brutally smashing each others' heads with rocks, would have been gorgeously horrific. Here, in Lee Mu-yeong's hands, the grownup brat (Ahn Jae-mo), the oaf (Park Sang-myeon), and the nutjob (Kang Seong-jin) seem forced to amputate a beggar (Kim Myoeng-su) and rape a nun (Myeong Sun-mi) without real cause. Withhold applause.

October 25, 2008

Born to Kill: She's Pretty, He's Dumb, Killer Romance

Sometime way back when, there was a poor little orphan (Jung Woo-sung). He didn't have a family so a gangster took him under wing and taught him how to use a knife. He got pretty good with said blade and perfected the art of stabbing. But having led a sheltered existence, his social skills were not on par with his job skills as an assassin. He'd never been with a girl, had a drink of soju or held a meaningful conversation. So when a brazen barmaid (Shim Eun-ha) intrudes and befriends then beds him, naturally his life gets a bit topsy-turvy. Suddenly, there's someone more important than his pet monkey Chi-chi. It's hard to say whether this self-serving woman understands the mixed up manchild but she admires his motorcycle, his looks, and the stacks of cash in the refrigerator. And when she demands that he hug her if he finds her pretty, he does so then yanks off his pants to show her just how pretty. So what that she's robbed him? So what that she calls him stupid? So what that she's not too bright herself? In Jang Hyeon-su's Born to Kill (1996), this is love, tragic love, and if the happily ever after doesn't happen, that's no big disappointment. This is a gangster film.

October 22, 2008

Piano Man: The Keyboard to Insanity

Poor Yu Sang-wook! The director mistakenly thinks we want to hear a nightclub diva singing ludicrous covers of Mariah Carey and Roberta Flack. (We don't.) He also believes that a sub-plot involving an alcoholic detective (Park Cheol) and his Sherlock Holmes of a son (Hong Kyoung-in) is going to add emotional heft to the story. (It doesn't.) Why all the superfluities, Yu? All we really want is a streamlined thriller, a boilerplate potboiler in which one swaggering lady dick (Lee Seung-yeon) tracks down a Goth serial killer (Choi Min-su) who does ventriloquism, lights himself on fire, and sulks behind a grunge-rocker hairdo. Piano Man (1996) had the potential to be so much more; it just needed to stick to doing a little less: As is, the procedural-crime drama has kick-ass cinematography from Seo Jeong-min who shoots from retro angles and in just the right palette of lurid reds. It's also got a bad-ass female detective who can give a serious smackdown to a gang of lawbreakers hustling black market license plates. Piano Man isn't quite a poor man's Memories of Murder. It's more like a fun but sloppy copy of something exceptionally good.

October 16, 2008

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring: Practice What You Preach

Like its title, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring doesn't conclude; it recommences. A bit of didacticism (Child learns cruelty to animals is bad!) serves as both prelude and coda. But what writer-director Kim Ki-duk extracts from this cliche the second time around feels oddly profound. That's because once you've traveled through childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age with the film's novice Buddhist monk (played by Kim himself at one point), you no longer interpret the same acts in the same way. Something inside you has changed, has shifted, and, dare we say it, has grown. Kim has always been about the internal world but this time, he forgoes having a mute lead character to underscore that point. This time, he lets the quietude emerge organically. The dialogue is as minimal as ever but Kim's unflinching acceptance of the unspeakable and his urge to convey the unsayable is less symbolic here even with this movie's parable structure and fabulist magic. To sum up what it all means about life, love and learning is bound to sound hokey. That's generally the case with a Kim movie which may explain why he likes to keep his characters so effectively quiet if they talk at all.

October 15, 2008

Cello: That Woman Has Come Unstrung

While not always true, some K-horror flicks have serious messages to impart: Don't screw with the devil (The Soul Guardians); don't enter haunted castles (R-Point); and don't ride the train that caused your father's death (Redeye). The wisdom of Cello is even more applicable to our lives: Don't kill your best friend. Too obvious for you? Well, what if that best friend just happened to be your main competition as an aspiring cellist? Not so easy anymore, eh? Now you begin to understand the moral dilemma faced by Hong Mi-ju (Seong Hyeon-a). Whether killing the competition can make her a better musician is another matter and you sense that maybe this pretty young mother is having trouble getting the professorship for reasons other than all those pills she's constantly popping. Maybe she's just not that good anymore. Whatever the reasons, her disregard for this oft-forgotten Golden Rule leads to the untimely deaths of every member of her family, her loyal dog, and a random bird. None of it's scary but some of it's artfully done. The occasional symbolism can get cryptic. What does it mean when the bad mama discovers her autistic child is having her first period while the two are sharing a bath?

October 11, 2008

Stray Bullet: The Story of an Aimless Life

It's not enough to be burdened with a prostitute sister and a shiftless war vet of a brother (Choi Mu-ryong). No. Stray Bullet's protagonist (Kim Jin-kyu) has to have a crazy mother, two hungry kids, a pregnant wife (Moon Jeong-suk), and a nagging toothache too. Akin to Italy's postwar neorealist films, Yoo Hyun-mok's black-and-white, working class drama illustrates with quiet poignancy that you may follow the precepts of Confucius and be the good son, the good husband, the good father, and the good worker and still end up with a fairly shitty life. When you're poor, taking the high ground of self-sacrifice means being one small step from the gutter. Given its strong social realist message, you'd almost think that Stray Bullet was a product of North Korea. But it's hard to imagine that country's movie industry telling this downer without an uplifting Communist coda. There's no propaganda here. Instead, witness the chilling scene in which the son, a paperboy, is seen running with a stack of today's news, the cover of which is a crime committed by his uncle. The downtrodden must capitalize even the darkest of moments. When life's anything for a buck, your conscience is a cage.

October 4, 2008

Ditto: Suppose Peggy Sue Didn't Get Married

Here's to the supernatural weepies and to Ditto which merits at least two hankies. Director Kim Jeong-kwon's first feature film is what might be called a tragic romance shaped by soft science fiction. A timid young woman (Kim Ha-neul) with endearing stalker tendencies fixates on a bland fellow college student (Park Yong-woo) who aspires to office worker. Before their fantasized romance has progressed to so much as a kiss, however, chance has forced a magical ham radio upon our clueless heroine. That very night (a lunar eclipse?) she adopts the new hobby which will nudge her temporarily out of her shell while leading her to inescapable doom. Breaker 1-9. Breaker 1-9. I'm a petulant college-sophomore (Yu Ji-tae) who lives twenty years in the future. We go to the same school. I can read tomorrow's news online but I won't give you any stock tips. Isn't this fun? I'm about to shatter your world by informing you that your best friend and that dull dreamboat are about to fall in love and make a baby. Me! (Reach for the tissue here.) Jang Jin's script has its share of quasi-philosophical quotes but it also has an understanding of the evanescence of time and how love only comes to those who leap.

September 27, 2008

Hera Purple - Devil Goddess: Mounting Olympus Again and Again

Didn't sexploitation go out in the '70s? Hasn't easy access to porn online made soft core obsolete? Apparently not. In Jeong Kil-chae's delightfully trashy Hera Purple (2001), one amnesiac rape victim (Kim Chang) goes under hypnosis then shifts shapes to seduce then castrate naked lithe young men doomed to perform a Kama Sutra of death for her revenge. She makes one man stand upside down, another do backbends, and a third do some serious gymastics in a door jamb, all in the name of the orgasm. A fourth (or is he the fifth?) copulates with her underwater with nary a breath. Her husband isn't killed coitus interruptus but afterwards, he does end up incoherent in the bathroom where he... Oh, it's absurd. This part you've got to see to believe. That said, a priest who tries to escape her magic touch (which causes instant arousal) can't run away once she's buried her face in his rear. Her final victim? Her psychiatrist. No. That's not true. It's the gay cop she takes from behind. The police detective who finally tracks her down turns out to be her long lost brother so his fatal gunshot is a bittersweet moment during which she sings a childhood ditty about a potato and a flower. Zeus protect us!

September 26, 2008

Bitter and Sweet: The Aftertaste of Fluorescent Lights

Film students sweating over an overdue term paper on appropriation should consider Bitter and Sweet the answer to their prayers. A prismatic comedy about office drones (Ahn Sung-kee, Choi Jong-won, Park Sang-min, Song Young-chang) who escape bleak reality via rebellious fantasies, Lee Myung-se's workplace satire overflows with easily identifiable references to Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Dr. Seuss, Singin' in the Rain, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty... The list goes on and on. It's not hard to imagine some happy undergraduate madly scribbling or typing all the ideas flooding his or her mind. Those not working on a thesis, however, will be less excited. Although intermittently amusing (a giggle, a chuckle, no laughs), Bitter and Sweet is more often overemphatic and under-rehearsed. There's nothing sublime about Lee's social critique and the acting is so unpolished you get the feeling that every scene was done in one shot with actors being handed scripts seconds before the clapper snapped and the director screamed "Action!" Visually, you'll see flashes of Hitchock, Minnelli, Tati, etc. What you won't see is something as lively as its source materials.

September 20, 2008

Libera Me: Pyro Mon Amour

Pyromaniacs provide firefighters with jobs. They also share a common interest. Still the two groups are improbable friends, at odds with each other for as long as one side wants to fan the flames and the other side wants to douse them. Libera Me isn't about to change all that. Sticking to the obvious, Yang Yun-ho's paean to the men with long hoses is basically a classic match-up between a fireman (Choi Min-su) who can psychically sense arson and a troublemaker (Cha Seung-won) who wants to see buildings burn. The hero's got guilt over a lost partner; the villain was inevitably abused as a child. Neither guy is particularly interesting. Luckily, fire loves a vacuum so in Libera Me, the fascination of both men emerges as the star. Exploding out windows, through walls, and up elevator shafts, this incendiary diva engulfs barely sketched out secondardy characters whom we never knew and we'll never miss. As unlucky extras flap their arms in panic or lie on the ashy floor, beautiful blasts of red, orange, and yellow fill the screen. Crackling dialogue is replaced by plain crackle. Explosive drama by repeated explosions. This isn't a movie. It's a promo for Zippo lighters.

September 14, 2008

Hi Dharma: The Bald Truth About Monks and Mayhem

Maybe dressing like a monk is as ha-ha funny as dressing in drag to Buddhist temple-goers. True or not, for a cutesy comedy about gangsters hiding out in a monastery, you kind of wish the impostors had gone all the way and shaved their heads. Instead, Park Chul-kwan's Hi! Dharma! has the mafiosos swapping two-piece suits for drab brown robes and leaves it at that. (The actors probably didn't want to jeopardize their chances at better roles when the shoot for this one was done.) What we've got here isn't a group of thugs trying to pass as ascetics. It's a competition between the bad boys and the goody goodies: Who can bow more? Who can hold his breath longer? Who's better at cards? Not the most cinematic of challenges for sure. The winner gets to decide whether the gang-members get to stay and for how long. Also not too dramatic. When it comes down to who's the fiercest fighter, predictably, the most kick-ass martial artist (Jeong Jin-yeong) comes from the nonviolent side. Unabashedly cornball and cheesy, Hi! Dharma! is definitely fast food cinema. You won't laugh until your stomach hurts but you'll be tided over until something more fulfilling comes along.

September 9, 2008

Bad Guy: Pimp Makes College Girl a Pretty Woman

Screw Julia Roberts. Director Kim Ki-duk knows prostitution is a nasty job capable of leaving a stink worse than the garbage man's. How's it start? Well, you've been framed. You owe some man $10,000 because you found his wallet then tried to steal the cash but you got caught red-handed so you took out an illegal loan to avoid going to jail but it basically turned you into a whore. That's the deal. Now, at $50 a bang, you're going to need to service 200 customers to pay him back. And that's not accounting for overhead—the rent, the cut for your madam and three pimps, the cost of cotton-candy colored wigs and a couple of batik summer dresses. Now you're up to 400 or 500 customers. How to keep count? How did this start again? Does the college girl (Seo Won) hate the ruffian (Jo Jae-hyeon) who trapped her into tricking or does the constant degradation eventually wear her down? A love story in the mold of The Story of O, Bad Guy is a harrowing descent into self-annihilation, a terrifying spin on class warfare, a despairing look at masochism's relationship to the world's oldest profession and maybe plain old human existence as well. It's a date movie for people who don't want to touch afterwards.

September 4, 2008

Conduct Zero: When It Doesn't Add Up, That's a Plus

There's something righteously reckless about Conduct Zero, a broad teen comedy that gives every indication of being hastily constructed and cheaply made. Lapses in logic notwithstanding, the movie wins you over because writer-director Jo Geun-shik isn't worried about whether you're going to believe the far-fetched shenanigans of his central character. Instead he's simply staying true to a quirky personal vision that's crudely funny if fairly unfocused. That latter part may be because his vision came unbidden one drunken weekend after which he awakened to discover an absurdly foul-mouthed screenplay, vomit-stained but typed on his bedside table. That it works is partly due to Jo's lead actor (Ryu Seung-beom), whose charming cad implausibly re-evaluates his juvie ways for the love of a virgin classical guitarist. Their romance pans out but then nothing ends the way you expect it to in Conduct Zero. The script has a serious case of Attention Deficit Disorder as it strays from its central story then reverts back to cliche only to misbehave again. Whether Ryu's giving a girl her first kiss or his ex- is picking a fight with a local gang, Conduct Zero never rings false because its reality is so bizarre.

August 31, 2008

Le Grand Chef: Cooking Up Something Special

Is there a dependable recipe for making a comedy? Le Grand Chef will have you thinking so. Director Jeon Yun-su's feel-good hit sticks to a tried-and-true formula that's served everyone from Frank Capra to Ron Howard. And it's so simple! Gather together some beloved types: the loyal grandson (Kim Kang-woo), a saucy ingenue (Lee Ha-na), the amoral rival (Lim Won-hie) dating back to childhood. Toss them into an equally classic story about a working class Joe who must compete with a citified poseur for the title of greatest chef. Spice it up with wacky subplots involving a charcoal-maker on death row, a cow that cries, the death of a one-armed royal chef, and the search for the perfect Ramen. Stir. Serve warm...and fuzzy. Since this is a Korean romantic comedy, there's no shortage of sugary moments. By the same token, there are episodes of outright violence as well as slapstick. (The uninterrupted gutting and skinning of a live blowfish is shown not once but twice up close.) Throughout, cooking is presented via split screens as if it were the national sport of Korea. Maybe it is. Who wouldn't vote for BBQ over Tae Kwon Do? Only fools who don't find Le Grand Chef deletectable.

Epitaph: A Few Final Words on the Death of Narrative

They may do it with a bloody knife (and a bloody scalpel and a bloody skewer) but the Jung Brothers spread the Art on so thick for Epitaph, their feature debut, that they also wipe the scares clean off the screen. As you await the next tastefully staged composition (and you will have to wait), you'll be doubtlessly questioning whether this really is a horror pic or simply a ghost story in which all dead people are cursed to become cryptic symbols instead of creepy spooks at the picturesque hospital. That distraught tween patient who bursts into screams periodically isn't frightened; she's confounded by the snail's pace of the experience (and the recurring snail imagery) as well as the outright theft of Bernard Hermann's signature Psycho screeching sounds. Esthetes may swoon over the tableaux vivants staged in front of sliding screens or the artsy ways in which blood flows over tile or onto snow. Yet for those too, a caveat: It's hard to stay awake. A snoozer if ever there was one, Epitaph's final revelation that the man possessed by the spirit of his dead wife is actually the woman possessed by the spirit of her dead husband inspires yawns of horror. D.O.A. R.I.P.

August 27, 2008

Musa - The Warriors: Once Upon a Time in 1375 A.D.

You can call it an historical epic, a period war movie, a Medieval costume drama, or an Oriental homage to Peckinpah. You could also call it a horror flick in disguise. How's that? Well, Kim Sung-su's suspenseful Musa - The Warriors can go bucket for bucket with many a slasher film plus its combat scenes are filmed in today's reigning jittery style. Heads fly off when you least expect it; red sprays from throats, bellies, backs, eye sockets, severed limbs and mouths wrenched in pain. More thrilling than chilling, Musa - The Warriors furthermore follows a typical genre thread by connecting all carnage by way of psychotic pursuers. The runaway princess (Zhang Ziyi) rescued by Korean envoys disrespected by the Ming dynasty to which she belongs are stalked, hunted, and taunted by various bloodthirsty Mongols ready to resort to any means necessary to get the girl. Too bad for the bad guys, the general (Ju Jin-mo) has eyes for the noblewoman. Too bad for the general, so does a slave (Jung Woo-sung). By the time these two reconcile their differences, any hope for survival has been obliterated. Like any good fright flick, the one warrior to get out alive (Ahn Sung-kee) sails out alone in the shadow of hopelessness. Genius!

August 24, 2008

Spare: Bad Luck, Bad Script, Bad Hair

By the time he hit the editing room, director Lee Seong-han presumably knew that Spare would fall short as a work of art. But rather than leave his reels in dusty tins on a high shelf in some forgotten closet, he dressed up his movie with fancy opening credits, pointless jump cuts and periodic dialogue in which an unseen audience reacts a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. (To Lee's credit, the fake viewers are as indifferent as you're gonna be.) Strippped of these embellishments, Spare is basically an action film oddly short on action. Most of its 98 minutes build to fight scenes that keep being delayed. What's weird is how often violence is promised: A cigar clipper stands ready to snip off fingers but doesn't; a ninja sword is unsheathed yet no one is stabbed. The two irresponsible gamblers at center are constantly under a gun that never fires. A punch in the face is as gruesome as the big battles get. More offensive are a turquoise-and-purple striped carpet in the airport and a shellacked ducktail hairdo that prevents you from taking the Japanese lead seriously. A strange two-piece suit with a metalic pin-stripe will leave you screaming, "Spare me!" Is that what Spare means?

August 23, 2008

Open City: Operatic Excesses and Petty Crimes

"The Rigoletto of Korean film," is how a friend described Sang Ki-lee's Open City and he's got a point for although not a single word is sung, this tragedy about a gang of violent pickpockets and the orphan-like policeman hot on their heels has enough big-moment melodrama, showy knife fights, and weepy orchestrations to justify the full Verdi treatment. (It even runs a little long!) In the colortura role, actress Song Ye-jin is the ultimate dragon lady—a ruthless beauty who hams it up for the camera as she slaps around her boys while wearing sparkly jewelry, slitted dresses, and stiletto heels. Is there anything more noir than a calculating woman with expensive sunglasses, a split lip and a cigarette? Yeah, just give her a fancy lighter. (She's got one.) True to the genre, she's faced with a male foil (Kim Myeong-min) who's a bit of a castrati; he doesn't have a shot in hell when faced with her wiles and he's way too chicken to take her up on an offer for a free tattoo. Complicating matters is a diabetic, splayfooted, reformed master criminal (Kim Hae-sook) who's also, coincidentally, the mother of the cop and the surrogate aunt to the femme fatale. Loyalties are tested. Blood is spilled...repeatedly. High notes are felt if never heard.

August 17, 2008

2009 Lost Memories: The Japanese Steal the Future

Of all the crimes against humanity, there are few worse than going back in time and changing history simply because you're ashamed you lost a war (unless that war is against robots). In the scifi action flick 2009 Lost Memories Japan, Korea's eternal nemesis, does nothing short of win WWII, nuke Berlin, and least forgivable of all, turn Korea into a Japanese colony—which at least isn't split into North and South halves because of internal conflicts. Masayuki Sakamoto (Jang Dong-kun) is going to change all that. A Korean member of the Japanese police, he stumbles upon a Korean patriotic faction that knows the secret of time travel and wants to return history on its proper track. That Japan will still emerge as a world power with Korea hardly its main commpetitor is a secondary concern. Sakamoto never thinks there might be away to exact revenge on Japan and really put them in the hot seat. He's happy enough to execute justice (and maybe his traitorous best friend, too while he's at it). Gun fire galore, a few exploding rockets, and some celebrational fireworks all add up to a body count that argues that you're better prepared in a nicely cut suit and a leather jacket than you are encased in armor because that just slows you down.

August 9, 2008

Three Extremes 2: A Short Film Takes Forever Times Three

The film shorts trilogy Three Extremes had work from China's Fruit Chan ("Dumplings"), Japan's Takashi Miike ("Box"), and most memorably Korea's Park Chan-wook ("Cut"). Three Extremes II has three mini-movies from Thailand's Nonzee Nimibutr ("The Wheel"), Hong Kong's Peter Ho-Sun Chan ("Going Home"), and Korea's Kim Ji-woon ("Memories"). Sadly, each of the new featurettes tries way too hard—albeit in a different way. Nimibutr's contribution has a gnarly narrative as if six different screenwriters had pitched an idea about a demonic puppet and the director had opted to do all of them instead of picking the best one. Chan's "Going Home" strains credulity as it constantly out-weirds itself with an out-there account of a naturopathic doctor who puts his wife in a coma to cure her cancer and administers acupuncture to a kidnapped cop while his aborted daughter's ghost roams the halls with the cop's missing son. Kim's featurette is the most disappointing—a pretentious, shapeless dreamscape in which a guy flashes back-and-forth between an amnesic state and a lived-out fantasy of murdering his wife. The highest praise any of these deserve is "laughable." Let the tittering begin.

August 2, 2008

Jail Breakers: Lame Prisoners on the Lam

There are bad comedies. And then there are god-awful ones. Kim Sang-jin's Jail Breakers falls squarely in the latter category. (This from the same director who brought us the delightful Attack the Gas Station!) A plodding chase movie in which two escaped convicts must find their way back into prison in order to get released properly for Amnesty Day, Jail Breakers is about as funny as solitary confinement. Part of the problem here is it's never clear why Convict 1 (matinee idol Cha Seung-won) wants to escape and whether Convict 2 (a braying Sol Kyung-gu) truly wants to return behind bars. Since the two actors don't exhibit any chemistry either, you're not only wondering why they're doing what they're doing but also why they're doing it with each other. Infinitely funnier (and more focused) is Convict 3 (Kang Seong-jin) who leads the insurrection back at the prison itself. Kang's performance is based on a theory of acting that advocates making a choice and sticking with it. Kang doesn't worry about dimensions, motivations or variation. He just bugs out his eyes and gets angry...over and over again. He can't quite stifle all the yawns but he at least keeps the movie from being a criminal waste of time.

July 27, 2008

The Bow: Mind Your Own Business, Whippersnapper

Considered within Kim Ki-duk's oeuvre, The Bow is a fairly gentle fable. Sure, it centers around an old codger (Jeon Seong-hwang) who runs a recreational fishing vehicle and the underage simpleton (Han Yeon-reum) who he's kidnapped then raised for ten years to be his blushing bride but instead of delving into the brutal realities such a love-slave scenario suggests, The Bow turns out to be a peculiar winter-summer romance, and a shortlived one at that. In the end, you're left to figure out for yourself whether the appearance of the cute college student (Seo Si-jeok) is the girl's undoing, her salvation, or even whether it will have any major impact on her life at all. Since she's spent the entire movie as quiet as a dormouse except for a couple of giggles, one crying jag, a few whispered words into the old man's ear, and an orgiastic bit caused by her sexual awakening with a ghost, she's probably going to go through life as silently as she started whether she's surrounded by the clamor of the city, the rhythms of the country, or the serenity of the sea. If that busybody undergrad is a student of philosophy, he's now well prepared to write a paper addressing the following question: Are you responsible for the life you save?

July 22, 2008

Redeye: When the Dream Is Not a Nightmare

If nightmare-causing moments are what you're after, most Korean fright flicks are bound to disappoint. Look at Redeye, Kim Dong-bin's moody spookshow about a phantom train on which deceased passengers share berth-space with the living. It's got plenty of horror movie mainstays: the rainstorm, flickering lights, fog, cobwebs, a random spider, a music box, and an affectless child who likes to draw in red. It's also got some second-tier dependables like dirty mirrors, a late victim's cell phone, a possessed wig, a camera that sees ghosts, and a pair of shiny scissors used repeatedly as a weapon. As a catalogue of creepiness, Redeye is respectable stuff. As a journey into your darkest fears, however, it's more a conundrum. As the runaway train careens towards a terminal of the dead, the heroine (snack bar servant and daughter of the dead engineer) sleepwalks from one disaster to the next. Ghosts may come and go; she may scream and faint. But the dreamlike world isn't terrifying so much as its surreal. That's not a complaint. K-horror often feels like a strange, off-kilter parallel universe. Like many unconscious psychic trips, it's filled with symbols and a cast of characters who rarely ask why anything is happening.

July 19, 2008

Time: Love Me. Love My Face

It took me awhile to come around to Kim Ki-duk. He can be pretentiously affected (Real Fiction) or ridiculously farfetched (Samaritan Girl). But Time, like The Isle and 3-Iron, reillustrates that at his best he's an almost-mystical storyteller. The inverted romance concerns a man and his girlfriend (Park Ji-yeon) who gets plastic surgery to find out if he loves her. Or to keep him interested. Or because she hates herself. Motives are inscrutable: Kim is no Pavlovian! Anyway, just when this nutty girl is about to reveal that the new her (Seong Hyeon-a) is the same person as the old her, the boyfriend (Ha Jung-woo) announces he's still in love with his ex, not knowing his new paramor is one and the same. She goes ballistic. He finds out then freaks out himself. In fact, he freaks out so much that he goes to the same plastic surgeon for help. What the confused loverboy looks like after that operation we never learn. What we do see is she's going crazy trying to find out. Is that guy at the scuplture park him? Or the friendly patron at the neighboring table at Room & Rumors coffeeshop? Or is he, please God no, the fatal victim in a car accident? Whatever! She returns to the beauty clinic for another new face to help her forget or to let her escape or because she's addicted to going under the knife. Hippocrates, where art thou?

July 12, 2008

The Wig: Sister, Don't Mess With My Hair!

Ji-hyeon (Yu Seon) is faced with a serious dilemma in Won Shin-yeon's The Wig. Strange things have been happening since her leukemic sister (Chae Min-seo) returned from the hospital. Ji-hyeon suspects that the cause of this recent downturn of events (e.g., her fiance dumping her and a close friend turning into a homicidal killer) may have something to do with the wig bought for her bald, terminally ill sibling. Yet she also senses that this same purchase has restored her sister's health and imbued her with a bit of friskiness. What to do? Since she can't talk to anyone about the various complications and suspicions because her vocal cords were severely damaged by a steel rod that fell off a truck (more bad luck!), she kind of lurks around looking maudlin. Who can blame her if she squeaks in confusion? By the time she decides to take action (you go girl!), her world has been completely upended. Turns out her former boyfriend was once seriously involved with a trannie; now that same ex-lover wants a relationship that spans the grave. The truth may shock but rejected or not, this is one damsel in distress who is not about to give up on her man after she finds out that he's uninterested, unfaithful, and gay. Horror of horrors.

July 5, 2008

Les Formidables: This Brotherhood Knows No Bounds

Nothing pleases like a tale of redemption. And in Les Formidables, writer-director Cho Min-ho has made an action-packed one in which a degenerative detective (Park Joong-hoon) and a principled criminal (Cheon Jeong-myeong) have a shared lesson in selflessness and the meaning of true friendship. Unlike his earlier buddy flick Jungle Juice (which was a guilty pleasure at best), Cho's Les Formidables wastes no time setting up its story of two men on the run by looking for laughs in dorky adolescent humor. Brutal and spare despite its corkscrew narrative, the movie opens with a spectacular fight scene that leaves Park's cop with a battered head, a loss of dignity, and no partner. Next up is Cheon's just-as-rapid descent from self-employed short-order cook to bloodied, bewildered fugitive. What keeps the heart pounding from then on is Cho's skill in tightening the net around the duo by having one side of the law then the other get closer and closer to capturing and/or killing. That each man has a friend on on the inside and a woman on the outside who'll go to great lengths (one for love; the other, for kicks) ensures that this action movie outpaces its competition in the genre. The bobbypin scene qualifies as a classic.

July 2, 2008

Green Chair: She Sure Likes 'em Young

She's a sexy older woman straight out of prison where she served time for seducing a minor. He's the not-so-traumatized boy on the cusp of manhood who comes to pick her up on the day she's released. High tension? Not a whit. Rather there's a subsequent half hour of soft porn in Green Chair during which the estranged lovers copulate in every position to see if they can exhaust their sexual attraction to each other. No such luck. Afterwards, we're force-fed the fantasized realities of a winter-summer romance which blossoms in the secluded home of the ex-con's best friend, a bohemian artist who makes bad coffee cups for a living. What you'll learn? Pedophilia is so taboo that no one really wants to confront it. Or maybe Age of Consent laws are so controversial, it's best to sidestep the issue. How much easier it is to make a sexy bit of erotica in which a divorcee (Suh Jung) worries about rejection, and a hormonal teenager (Shim Ji-ho) gets trained in the sack where the ultimate expression of love is swallowing. Writer-director Park Cheol-su needs to bone up on his Foucault, his Nabokov, and his Susie Bright.

June 26, 2008

My Little Bride: Sixteen Going on Ten

What does it take to get a bratty, egotistical teenager (Mun Geun-young) to realize that the man her grandfather has tricked her into marrying happens to be the cutest, sweetest, most loyal guy this side of the 38th parallel? Evidently, enough evidence to solve all the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen combined. This guy (Kim Rae-won) never demands sex, lets her tell the neighbors he's gay, goes on his honeymoon alone, doesn't try to kiss her, lets her date a swoony guy on the high school baseball team, stays up until all hours of the night to finish her art project without her knowing it, and won't let a soul criticize his little woman along the way. Clearly, a virgin wife is prized by this man. I guess he figures that he's going to get a satisfying payoff in the end. That she's a fairly unlikable young lady with little charm and prone to make ugly faces makes his patience with her misbehavior a strain to credulity. It also gives this romantic comedy a schizoid edge that prevents it from ever feeling like treacle. An effective comic turn from Ahn Sun-yeong as the lecherous spinster who teaches the class where the groom serves his internship brings some legit laughter to My Little Bride. Odd but not bad.

June 22, 2008

Nightmare: Laughing at Death

You have to slog through a morass of mystification before Nightmare takes off. But the last 20 minutes are the kind of crazy, nonsensical, campy shenanigans that have kept me a horror fan in between the actually scary movies. Furthermore, you can probably fast forward to this part and not lose anything in the process. The fun starts when an incrimating videotape reveals the crime that's been the cause of all the murders which have preceded. While there's definitely a relief to learn the why behind it all, what's more entertaining is to see a killer pussycat attack the man who ends up being the villain. That guy (Yu Jun-sang) goes on to give what could be a career-defining performance: He laughs insanely, he grins demonically, he stares moronically, he strangles with videotape. Where's the acting school that teaches this extreme form of expressiveness? As he batters the two surviving ingenues—a mental institute patient (Choi Jeong-yun) and her insensitive friend (Kim Gyu-ri) who's continually cursed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time—Yu breathes new life into the expression "so bad it's good." Director-writer Ahn Byeong-ki improved with later efforts Phone and Bunshinsaba. Here is his humble beginning.

The Butcher: Definitely Not Approved by the FDA

Independent cinema. Attach those two words to a low-budget movie and you're making a promise of a fresh perspective, some groundbreaking material or one original thinker behind the whole thing. But Kim Jin-won's indie horror flick The Butcher delivers on none of these promises. The script is insipid, a tediously pointless bit of torture porn filmed sea-sickeningly by a camera attached to the primary victim's head. The dialogue is fifty percent inarticulate expressions of pain (screaming), fear (panting), and defeat (whimpering from behind a ball gag). The other fifty percent is self-conscious lowbrow structuralism, some of which is spoken, appropriately enough, off-the-cuff while smoking a cigarette. Like many a hack before him, Kim is subconsciously aware he's making a piece of crap. He may try to dress up his pseudo-snuff with shockery like urinating, vomiting, the gouging of an eye, and the sodomizing of his hero by a man wearing a pig's head, but he eventually let's his self-important mask slip when he has his stand-in -- the director of the video within the film -- proclaim, "I know we can sell this to the U.S. They're always looking for more bloody things. But this ain't art at all." Truer words were never spoken. At least not in The Butcher.

June 19, 2008

The Quiet Family: Shhh! No Laughing Allowed

Bad dramas make me angry. Bad comedies leave me bored. In keeping with that, Kim Ji-woon's flat farce about a family who falls into the habit of killing guests at the inn they've recently bought didn't irritate me with its implausibility. It left me comatose. Not many comedies elicit no laughs, no titters, no smirks, no half smiles, no slightly internal feelings of amusement without any outward expressions at all, so I suppose The Quiet Family is something of an acchievement in how purely it fails. When's the last time you saw a film in which every comic set up fell short of the mark. From the initial suicide of the first customer to the mass burning of dead bodies in the warehouse out back, the crimes get more and more extreme without ever feeling outrageous. You feel the actors playing the macabre scenario for all its worth; you also feel Kim's script has nothing amusing to say. Maybe this isn't a comedy. Maybe this is a murder mystery and the part of the detective has been pretty much left on the editing room floor. Or maybe this is a horror movie in which the ghost is invisible and it's our job to insert his spooky presence. It certainly feels like work watching it.

June 11, 2008

The Soul Guardians: Jesus Christ, That's Scary

I've seen Catholicism rear its Romanesque head before in Korean films but never as gorgeously as it does in Park Kwang-chun's The Soul Guardians. This K-Horror classic's got a madonna who weeps blood, a child prodigy of white magic, and a succubus who holds her lover literally by the bleeding heart. Talk about imagery! Talk about mysticism! Talk about heavy metal! Bring on that pentagram mapped out in candles already! The Satanic cult has birthed a dear-if-dim soul who only needs to take off her crucifix and lie down on the table to officially become Satan's bride. Subplots involve a trampy roommate doomed to coitus interruptus, a cop so unaware of the other side that he accidentally opens the Gates of Hell, and a flying dagger with abandonment issues. This is an alternate reality to rival Narnia in terms of converting Christianity's battle between Good and Evil into something a little more cinematic than The Bible. (Does anyone really want to see a filmed version of Chronicles or Psalms?) It may be sad that knifethrower Hyun-am (Shin Hyeon-jun) has to stab his soulmate (Chu Sang Mi) to save the world, but sometime a knife isn't just a knife. Symbolism people!

June 7, 2008

Jungle Juice: Stupid Is as Stupid Does

Take out all the curse words in Jungle Juice and you'd be left with a silent movie colorized with Dayglo spraypaint. This cornball comedy's two numbskull-punks (Jang Hyuk and Lee Beom-su) cuss if they're bragging, cuss if they're clowning around, and cuss if someone's smacking them silly...which happens pretty often. The non-stop profanities and the aggressively bloody slapstick which, true to the word's roots, really does involve equal parts slap and stick, quickly gets tedious given the lack of plot in the meandering first half. By the time an actual story emerges -- involving stolen cocaine, intra-gang warfare, and a prostitute who goes by the name of Meg Ryan (Jeon Hye-jin), writer-director Cho Min-ho has his work cut out for him in terms of winning over an audience. That he does even partially is kind of amazing. The final halfhour is tight: multiple storylines intertwine and the goofy highjinks take on unexpected gravitas. In the end, it's still a stupid buddy pic with yuk-yuk gags and actors making silly faces but you're also clued in to the fact that Cho's capable of much more. He's the class clown who's smarter than he'd like to admit. Hey Cho! There's nothing wrong with being brainy. Try it sometime.

May 31, 2008

Natural City: Cyborgs With Alzheimers

Let's say a car lasts ten years and a computer lasts three. Based on the idea that the more advanced the machinery, the shorter its lifespan, how long do you think a dancing hooker-robot would last? If your answer is not long enough, you're probably already a resident of the cyberpunk Natural City. When Ria (Seo Rin), a replicant starts to go on the blink, her patron-lover goes to every extreme to keep her alive. A member of the military police, R (Yu Ji-tae) sacrifices fellow members of the force, jeopardizes the life of his best friend, and kidnaps a prostitute as he works towards one insidious goal: to implant his machine-whore's consciousness into the brain of that unlucky streetwalker (Lee Jae-un). Writer-director Min Byung-chun takes the man-automaton romance pretty seriously which doesn't seem so far-fetched considering that until very recently, women were considered property in marriage. Since a robot could be programmed to "love and obey" without a lot of back talk, it's hard not to admit that plenty of guys would jump at the chance to set up house with a remote control bitch. Natural City is a call to read the small print on the warranty label. Don't grow too attached to your purchases!